Sahara as a record is hardly a vast harsh environment dripping as it does with Spanish love poetry, and it is also the title of an aching mood piece on this collection of 15 flamenco songs. But there are enough distinguishable Moorish and Arabic accents throughout the music on this record to justify the name for the entire compilation. Though already known as a singer/poet in his hometown of Cadíz, Javier Ruibal is becoming better recognized outside of Spain thanks to his introduction at Womad 2002 and Sahara, the album released internationally as a follow up. A gifted singer and very modern composer of flamenco, Ruibal tells about life lived in the flamenco way. This is not the strident flamenco designed for dance, but the soft languorous flamenco for story telling, music arranged to create a lush, comfortable environment to listen to the singer’s story. Even when surrounded by the decor that tradition demands, Ruibal is modern and sparse, quite sparing with words in an otherwise wordy tradition, and sometimes the results are surprising and rather beautifully stark. Ruibal occasionally mixes a bit of the surreal into the passionate and so seems to honor an emotional and poetic path towards the modern first cleared by Federico García Lorca (though everyone tends to compare Ruibal with Pablo Neruda). Ruibal’s personalized agonizing about the state of his heart provides the breath taking imagery that only heartbreak and yearning can inspire, and the emotions are easily translated from the Spanish he sings into a language nearly any heart can understand.
Like many modern poets, he moves freely from the sensual into the erotic, though for propriety’s sake he stops just short of becoming overtly sexual. His description of physical desire is respectful and loving, and of course is designed to be appealing as he is attempting to seduce. He can explain his own “disturbing desire” quite intimately: “I who know the contour of your body by heart / the precise map of each of your beauty spots / the locks and curls of your hair / the very bend of your knee” because he knows the object of his affection intimately and longs to receive her familiar passion (“your deranged tongue”). So, while her tongue might be appreciated as “deranged”, there is nothing explicit mentioned about what she might have done with it. Ruibal continues maintaining decorum in public speech.
Other times, poor Ruibal having merged with another soon despairs the loss of that physical connection. He feels deserted, luckless singer that he is, and as he melts in his own misery, his words can excite only the guitar to respond. On “Vino y Besos” (“Wine and Kisses”), Ruibal laments being separated from his beloved, but while he tries to entice her interest, he falls prey to the seductions of modernity. Here, the singer is presented as the typical poor boy of tradition (“And I even don’t even have enough to buy stamps / if I did I would write to you) who is drunk as ever with his own passion, but there are surprising graphic descriptions of physical love that lend a contemporary air. He mentions nipples (I guess you can say that onstage publicly in Spain) and describes nestling his head between the breasts of his beloved. There are more than a few other modern twists to the lyrics, even though the romantic moon is still in its time-honored place and role as the manipulator: “And between the moon and the computer / the television and interactive life / there is room for no one else / may I be struck by a laser beam / now that you have deserted me.” Computers, televisions, and laser beams are finding a place in current flamenco tunes. This is getting to be a different sort of world now and the stories are changing to accommodate that modernity.
Of course, flamenco often deals with the heartache and the struggle of just trying to get through life, which is complex in the real-life modern world. “Boca de Rosa” (“Rose Lips”) is a miniature story about passion and its consequences, which may involve crime and punishment or perhaps even something more. The scene is set with the smell of cheap perfume and sawdust, and the cast of forlorn characters is introduced: “A throng of women / bored without clientele / except for a marine from Texas / who is interested in Carmela.”
Ruibal as the singer wants only to reach out and save Rose Lips from being crushed by her destiny. “It was her man / who loves her so / and often makes her cry / who went and gave that fatal warning to the yank / according to Marina’s own account / she found him drifting / perhaps he was torn from the jetty / by a storm of alcohol.”
This might seem a simple story, but even so the action outline seems uncomfortably vague. Which man was found floating in the Bay? At first, it seems obvious this was a murder. If “her man” had been murdered by the yank, that likely would have been the end of that. So, then, what if instead it were the body of “the yank” found floating face down, his death being immediately suspected as murder and one quickly solved in a small town. That likely would also have been the end of that; there would have been no need for further explanation or action other than an arrest. But while there soon is mention of something ominous and foreboding hanging in the future, there is no mention of an impending arrest.
So now it seems that “her man” gave the “fatal warning to the yank” and then committed suicide. Why would he have done that? The mind struggles to fill in the blanks. Could Rose Lips have confessed to her man that she had become HIV-positive, and he, overcome with anger and fear and already hating the yanks who use the girls, decided to terrorize the American sailor? If it is this final interpretation that is intended, it’s such an ultra contemporary topic for flamenco, that might explain the reason it is purposefully obscured, the message heavily layered and concealed and not directly addressed. Or it might not. But is it possible—that interpretation seems to be the only way to account for the dramatic closing lines:
“Rose Lips it’s your turn to wait / for the volunteers / from the Navy Base to roll up / Rose lips / winter is coming / and Rota has become / the waiting-room for Hell.”
Because the American medical base in Rota is devoted to servicing the health needs of those stationed there and their resident families, it’s doubtful Navy volunteers would make a house call for any reason but one completely in their own interest and assigned duty, to protect the health of their own. So it might be this song is a heartbreaking contemporary spin on the old story of prostitution proliferating around U.S. military bases. Or it might not be. I may suffer from an overactive imagination, and I must also rely on the English translation provided.
Truthfully, you don’t need to understand the words to enjoy the rich melismatic sound of Javier Ruibal and be swept away. There are more than enough songs here that are recognizably “flamenco” to keep anyone sighing for hours over the bowl of sangria. The more experimental tunes are accented with Arabesque figures (“Por La Puerta De Elvira”) while others drift into atmospheres sweeping with lush strings or are deceptively languid with a simple jazzy piano accompaniment. Ruibal creates flamenco as a disciplined, emotional, and intelligent music, what Lope de Vega could have been describing as “Versos de amor, conceptos esparcidos” (“Poetry of love, scattered conceits”). On the closing piece, Ruibal puts his words to Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes No. 1”, a classical piano composition which still sounds amazingly fresh and modern though written back in the 1890s; he closes the disc with his new interpretation, called here “La Flor de Estambul”. If you feel like a trip to that special tablaos, the “Café Canatantes” where only the evocative flamenco lives to be sung about, Javier Ruibal can easily transport you there.